Age of Experience

Sanctus ex Machina

This is an excerpt from an upcoming book on the discipline of Creative Technology.

I have a confession to make. I love watching ghost hunting shows. Since Ghost Hunters started on the SciFi channel almost a decade ago, it’s been fascinating to see people go into locations around the world to attempt to find concrete examples of paranormal activity. Ghost hunting has blown up since then. We have bros with t-shirts two sizes too small yelling into empty rooms. There are teams of pseudo-scientific engineers creating Tesla coil powered pyramids to capture a spirit in a “focus crystal.” Beyond the historical aspect of learning about asylums, castles and abandoned mansions, it’s also interesting to hear why people believe in ghosts. Not in the sense of mediums and ghost whisperers, but what are the environmental effects that people feel that cause cold spots? Why certain rooms in buildings cause a sense of dread in some people?

In the early 1980s, Vic Tandy, an engineer and IT lecturer at Coventry University had an encounter with the paranormal. Tandy was working in a medical device research lab when he, “was sweating but cold, and the feeling of depression was noticeable – but there was also something else. It was as though something was in the room with me.” As the feeling grew more intense he started to see an apparition appear in his peripheral vision. When Tandy turned to look at the apparition, it disappeared.

The next day Tandy returned to the same laboratory. An avid fencer, Tandy had his foil clamped in a vice so he could polish it. When he walked away from the blade it started to vibrate wildly. Another case of the phantom of the research lab? Quite by accident Vic Tandy stumbled upon the theory that infrasound was present in the lab.

Sound is an incredibly powerful thing for animals, from vocal communications that allow us to convey and share complex concepts, to music which allows us to convey a range of emotions. There are also other sounds that we can experience that triggers things that are more primal. Things in our reptile brains that we know are instinctually dangerous. Have you ever heard a lion roar? Not on TV. In person. Where you hear that majestic roar that has a deep bass that shakes you to your bones. That triggers your reptile brain to know that there’s something dangerous around.

Sound waves are physical pressure waves that vibrate in a medium like air or water. If we step back into high school physics class, waves consist of a few key properties: the frequency of a wave is defined by the number of repeating occurrences per period of time, measured in hertz (Hz); the inverse of frequency is the wavelength, the distance over which a wave repeats once, typically measured in meters for sound; and amplitude is the measure of change in the wave over a period of time, also measured in meters.

In terms of human hearing, we generally say that humans can hear sound from 20Hz to 20,000Hz. Frequencies under 20Hz are called infrasound while frequencies above 20,000Hz are called ultrasound.

Armed with the theory that infrasound was present in the lab, Tandy ran a series of experiments. Tandy’s theory was correct. Infrasound was present in the lab, caused by the presence of a newly installed extractor fan that generated sound waves at 18.9Hz. The infrasonic sound waves were strongest at Tandy’s desk, the location where he experienced his ghost sighting and where his fencing foil mysteriously shook on its own. When the extractor fan was turned off, the sense of dread lifted and the foil stopped dancing.

Able to reproduce the experiment, Tandy published his findings in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. While it had been known for some time that infrasound can trigger feelings of fear and shivering, Vic Tandy was the first researcher who linked that experience to ghostly sightings. Tandy followed up by testing his theory at other haunted locations like Edinburgh Castle and the Tourist Information Bureau next to Coventry Cathedral, finding the presence of infrasound at each location.

Modern day ghost hunters use a wide variety of technology tools to search for the source of apparitions. Electromagnetic field meters, white noise generators, thermal cameras. Perhaps ghost hunters should add an infrasonic microphone to their standard load out for the next ghost adventure.

So infrasound can instill a sense of fear and dread in people. Unless you are in the business of building haunted houses, which would be very cool, how does this help build engaging experiences? One of the interesting things about human emotions, especially physiological reactions, is that emotions lie on a spectrum. Sometimes two different emotions can trigger a similar physiological response.

Pipe organs trace their origins back to the 3rd century BC where the Greeks built a hydraulis, a water powered organ. A hydraulis would use the force of water, from either a waterfall or a pump, to generate air pressure that was pushed through pipes of various lengths. To see an amazing and modern version of a water organ, look at Nikola Bašić’s Sea Organ in Zadar, Croatia.

Around the 2nd century AD people started replacing the water mechanisms with inflated leather bags. Around the 6-7th century AD bellows were being used to drive the air pressure through the pipes. Pipe organs have grown more mechanically complex over the centuries and still show up in cathedrals and theaters around the world.

In One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi, Rabbi Alan Lew explains there are several different words for fear in biblical Hebrew. Pachad, or dread, is “projected or imagined fear,” the “fear whose objects are imagined.” This can be thought of in terms of instinctual fears as well, triggered in our reptile brain. Like hearing the roar of a lion.

Lew also describe a second type of fear described in Hebrew. Yirah is described as, “the fear that overcomes us when we suddenly find ourselves in possession of considerably more energy than we are used to, inhabiting a larger space than we are used to inhabiting.” That sounds a bit more like awe.

If you think of fear and awe in terms of physiological reaction, they are often quite similar. Goose bumps on your skin, hackles on your neck raise as your heart rate accelerates. If you experience those physical symptoms in a cathedral, your mind will probably wander to a different place than if you experience them in the basement of an abandoned sanitarium. And could those 64’ organ pipes that generate an 8Hz infrasonic tone be reinforcing another feeling in that cathedral?

While it’s impractical to install a pipe organ in a modern physical-digital experience, learnings from a 2000 year old technology can still help us add layers of depth of emotion to our experiences. By understanding traditional technology and the visceral reactions they can cause on human physiology and emotion, we can provide more compelling experiences that shape and focus users’ emotional responses.